The Queen and I

William Empson

introduced by John Haffenden

On 27 October 1954 the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh visited the University of Sheffield in order to inaugurate its Jubilee Session. No other reigning sovereign had visited the principal university buildings since King Edward VII opened them in 1905. Six months before the Queen’s visit, the Vice-Chancellor, Professor J.M. Whittaker, put to his recently-appointed Professor of English Literature a ‘general idea’ – to celebrate the Queen’s visit by reviving the masques with which Elizabeth I was greeted at Cambridge in 1564 and at Oxford in 1566 and 1592. Would Empson assist in the creation of a new masque by ‘writing such parts of it as would be spoken or sung’? The vocal part should be in English and not Latin, Whittaker suggested; it should have ‘literary value’ and be in modern idiom rather than a pastiche of Elizabethan poetry. ‘At any rate,’ he gentled Empson, ‘I hope you will turn the matter over in your mind.’

As Roma Gill has reported in the Times Literary Supplement (31 July), Empson advised the Vice-Chancellor that Elizabethan masquers would have told the Queen ‘that she was God, and that she had invented steel.’ If he felt initial doubts about the venture, he nevertheless forged ahead and sketched the outline of The Birth of Steel within a few days. The plot tells how a Medieval alchemist – aptly named Smith – is baffled in his attempts to fashion a steel sword: mocked by his minions, he appeals to Minerva, Goddess of Wisdom, who thereupon enters in majesty and introduces the instruments of modern science. The open-air production took full shape during Empson’s summer absence at the School of Letters in Bloomington, Indiana. The student producer, Peter Cheeseman (now Director of the New Victoria Theatre, North Staffordshire), together with the stage manager Alan Curtis, bulked up Empson’s spare and insufficiently dramatic verse with ‘alchemical mumbo-jumbo’; the composer Gilbert Kennedy ensured the grandness of the occasion with a score that incorporated blues and jazz rhythms, solemn chorales, and a triumphal tune to accompany Minerva’s entrance in a golden car; and the architect Alec Daykin designed a covered stage and backcloth. The volunteer orchestra numbered 66, with a large brass section provided by the Sheffield Transport Band; and a huge chorus included university undergraduates, students from the City of Sheffield Training College and members of the Lyd-gate-Crosspool Choir. Such was the scale of the operation that the three groups – student orchestra, Transport Band, chorus – had to rehearse in separate venues, and they came together only just before the performance. The assembled company filled half the quadrangle, with the conductor’s rostrum being sited directly above a central fountain. Pilkington Brothers produced a magnificent bullet-proof glass pavilion for the Queen, and so completed a setting – just as Empson had prefigured – fit for her audience with a goddess. Pamela Brown. a statuesque student contralto, played Minerva.

‘It is, I believe, the first time English royalty has been given the real old flattery for three hundred years,’ he told his publisher when requesting that the masque be included in his Collected Poems. ‘The Queen thought it funny and was sweet about it, to me and the composer (the music was terrific) and the two speaking parts. It isn’t meant to be good poetry but it’s somehow politically right (I mean, it combines queen-worship with pro-worker sentiment and fair claims for the university back-room boys) and it is really rather a curiosity.’ In truth, nothing quite like it had been achieved or attempted since Thomas Arne’s masque Alfred (1740), produced for the Prince of Wales and chiefly memorable for including the first performance of ‘Rule, Britannia’. Seven months later, when the music critic of the Times (unaware of Sheffield’s undertaking) suggested that the masque must take a modest form if it is to survive in the modern world, Empson fairly claimed in a letter to the editor (13 June 1955):

We followed the old formula without inhibitions ... The performance took just under fifteen minutes, and no doubt the old full length would have been thought too much. But, apart from that, we did not find that the modern world requires ‘modesty’ in a masque. We actually puzzled our heads over this question, and the modern world turned out to think that the more knock-down the show could be the better.

At about the same time, in 1955 – moved by the unique historical significance of the occasion and the awful implications of addressing the Queen as a goddess – he wrote this previously unpublished memoir. And in a later year, when asked why he thought he had been knighted in 1979, he promptly quipped: ‘Well, you see, I once called her a goddess. What else could she do?’ The text follows.

I suppose I have no business to print any remarks made in comparative private by the Queen of England, or indeed by the Vice-Chancellor of Sheffield University: but as what I have to say is solely to their credit I do not expect it to annoy anyone. Indeed, you might feel that these remarks are merely a piece of boasting, and have the inherent dullness of that process: but I should expect a reader to feel, as I did, that the whole affair was anxious somehow. It was a matter of reviving the real old half-blasphemous flattery of the Renaissance which I don’t suppose has been proffered to any English royalty for three hundred years. One was bound to be rather doubtful about how it would go off.

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[*] Dr Kennedy was actually an expert not on cancer but on natural pigments; the Duke of Edinburgh talked to him about porphyrins.